A heated debate is underway in B.C. as the province's hydro utility embarks on a program to modernize the grid using smart meters.

BC Hydro is in the process of replacing more than 1.8 million analog meters throughout the province with smart meters, which are capable of providing hourly information about electricity consumption. BC Hydro expects the changeover will be complete by the end of 2012.

The utility estimates the meters will save consumers $1.6 billion over the next 20 years by preventing the loss and theft of power.

But there's an intense revolt against smart meters brewing in the province, with more than 15,000 residents signing petitions opposing the devices.

Outside Crystal Di Domizio's downtown Vancouver apartment is a bank of 30 smart meters, and each will be transmitting real-time electricity usage back to BC Hydro headquarters.

"When I look at this, I see the potential to there being 30 wireless internets or 30 cellphones and I would never expose myself to being that close

[to those]," she said.

Domizio, who is pregnant, said she's considering moving to get away from smart meters.

'Potential health risks'

Steve Satow, who lives outside of Victoria, built a wooden box on the meter outside his house to keep BC Hydro out. Satow is a director of the group Coalition to Stop Smart Meters, one of several grassroots groups in B.C. calling for a moratorium on smart meters.

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Crystal Di Domizio says she's considering moving to get away from smart meters. (CBC)

"If they remove my box, that is criminal damage and I can charge them with that," Satow said.

A common concern among smart meter opponents is the wireless radio embedded in each one. Similar to a cellphone, BC Hydro calls the radio several times a day to report on how much power customers are using.

"They're mandating a wireless device on our houses, which has potential health risk on our houses, operating 24 hours a day, and we've been given no options on this," Satow said.

BC Hydro, however, says smart meters are active for an average of about one minute per day.

"If you stood right next to one for 20 years, it would be the same amount of radio frequency that you'd get from a 30-minute cellphone call," said BC Hydro spokesperson Cindy Verschoor.

Putting things in perspective

To put the issue in perspective, CBC News asked engineer Rob Stirling to do some measurements.

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BC Hydro spokesperson Cindy Verschoor says smart meters are perfectly safe. (CBC)

On a busy street corner in downtown Vancouver, Stirling used a computer to register everything from radio stations to cellphones, concluding the reading is far below limits set by Health Canada.

Stirling then took the same equipment to BC Hydro's lab, turning on a bank of smart meters at full blast and holding the antenna just a few centimetres away.

The printout of the test at BC Hydro showed radio frequency levels were no higher than those taken on the street.

"[It's]

no higher than a typical cell conversation," Stirling said.

Privacy concerns

Opponents also argue smart meters invade their privacy by documenting hour-by-hour use of electricity.

Earlier this week, B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham faulted Hydro for failing to prove its methods for safeguarding data will prevent unauthorized access, perhaps by someone determined to learn when homes are left empty.

But Verschoor said BC Hydro's concerned customers amount to less than one per cent of the total. BC Hydro said it will delay smart meter installation for customers with concerns until their questions are answered.

"We've got a lot of runway left before we get there and we're going to keep talking," Verschoor said.

With files from the CBC's Curt Petrovich, Chris Brown